Buckmasters Magazine

Is the Rut Overrated?

Is the Rut Overrated?

By David Hart

Is the rut really the slam dunk so many of us assume it is?

Just how popular is the rut? Ask any deer hunter and he’ll insist it’s the best time to tag a trophy-class buck. We plan our vacations around it, and we anticipate it the way a child counts down the days to Christmas morning. Even outfitters charge a premium for that mythical period when wise, old bucks lose their senses and run wild through woods and fields.

But is the rut really the best time — the only time, by some hunters’ standards — to kill a mature buck? Is it worth spending the extra money on a guided hunt during the rut?

The answer depends on who you ask. For every hunter who tags a bruiser during the peak breeding season, there are countless more who don’t.

So is the rut really all it’s cracked up to be?

LONE RANGERS

There’s no question bucks are more active during the rut. Numerous studies have shown bucks travel far and wide in search of a doe in estrus, often going outside their home ranges. That alone makes them more vulnerable.

Although it can vary dramatically, a buck’s typical home range is in the neighborhood of a square mile. They live their entire lives in that area, except when they have the unstoppable urge to breed. One 3 1⁄2-year-old buck in Texas made an 18-mile excursion in 29 hours, according to a research project that ended in 2008.

That deer followed a draw for 5 miles before the cover ran out. It then followed a fence line 2 miles before making a 90-degree turn and following another fence line that separated two large open fields for nearly 3 miles. More than two-thirds of that distance included open fields or other open country, and the buck appeared to be on its feet the majority of the time. It covered more than a mile per hour at times.

Nine days later, the same buck traveled 11 miles in 14 hours. It took a different route than its first excursion, traveling in a near straight line before returning to its home range, walking across open fields throughout much of the distance.

That buck was an exception, at least in terms of the distance traveled. However, Texas A&M-Kingsville research scientist and professor Dr. David Hewitt, who is the co-author of the Texas study, says just about every buck that was tracked took a big swing that lasted a few hours up to a full day during the breeding season.

“They would certainly show up in places they normally didn’t go outside of the rut,” Hewitt said.

One of the most important things he and fellow researchers learned is that buck activity during the rut isn’t random, as many deer hunters assume it is. Of course, some bucks wander, but instead of random excursions through woods and across fields, many radio-collared bucks seemed to seek out specific areas, likely areas where does were known to hang out. These focal areas, as Hewitt calls them, might or might not be located within a buck’s home range.

“They would visit these focal areas every day or so,” he said. “We assume that was because the bucks would return to check on the status of a doe.”

THE HUNTING FACTOR

Hewitt said he couldn’t tell if bucks that didn’t venture outside of their home range during the rut were more vulnerable to hunters. The study area consisted of private property with light hunting pressure, so some could have cautiously slipped through thick cover while others could have stood out in an open field.

Bucks might get stupid during the rut, but mature bucks aren’t dumb, especially those that have been bumped around the first few autumns of their life. Another research project also found that bucks went on excursions during the rut, but James Tomberlin, the lead author of that study, said the bucks he followed via tracking collars tended to stay in woods and other cover.

The 3,000-acre study area was a corporate farm located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and although hunting pressure was tightly controlled, Tomberlin says it was intense during the two-week shotgun season.

“Many of the bucks were not going past the stands,” recalls Tomberlin. “Even though the stands were moved periodically, it seemed as though the bucks became educated on the location of those stands.”

Is the Rut Overrated?THE BEST TIME? YUUUP!

Most bucks, however, make a mistake sooner or later and get caught in the open by a vigilant hunter. More often than not, that mistake takes place during the rut. A look at entries into various state big buck contests shows a clear trend.

“We have never done a study, but if you went to the Virginia deer contests and looked at the entries, I think you would find that a majority of the really big deer are taken during the early muzzleloading season,” says Matt Knox, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries deer and wild turkey project coordinator. “The rut peaks during that time.”

A long running survey of Virginia bowhunters shows a spike in antlered deer sightings during the fifth and six weeks of the state’s various deer seasons, which coincides with the rut.

During the first week of the early archery season, hunters recorded about 10 bucks for every 100 hours spent in the woods. That number jumped to 16 during the peak of the rut before falling slightly as the rut tapered off.

Knox points out the decline in buck sightings likely has to do with the fact that many were killed during that fifth week, the opening week of the state’s muzzleloader season.

Records from South Carolina’s antler records program, which recognizes bucks scoring over 125 inches, also show a clear trend in hunter success toward the peak breeding period. About 75 percent of all bucks entered into the program were killed when the highest percentage of fawns were conceived — in other words, the peak of the rut.

“South Carolina has a notoriously long season that tests if mature deer are vulnerable well before and after the rut,” said Charles Ruth, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources deer program coordinator. “Bottom line is they are not as vulnerable at those times compared to the rut.”

FOLLOW the DOES

Mississippi State University professor of wildlife ecology and management Dr. Steve Demarais agrees.

“Instead of self-preservation, they are thinking only about breeding, so they let their guard down, so to speak, in the name of passing on their genes,” he said.

Studies have shown bucks are more prone to be active during daylight hours because does are more likely to be up and moving during the daytime when they are in estrus. Does often dictate buck activity because they determine when actual breeding will take place. That’s why bucks chase does during the rut.

Females that aren’t ready to breed are trying to get away from the buck (or bucks) that are pestering them. Demarais recalls an episode while he was sitting in a treestand in which he watched a doe trot across a field. Soon after she entered the clearing, a buck followed hot on her trail.

“And then another buck came out and another buck and a couple more after that. There were seven or eight, all in a line,” he said. “That just shows you how important the presence of a doe can be. Once they find a doe in estrus, bucks are likely to stay with her.”

He adds that once females are receptive, they move much less, and so will any buck that is tending her.

WHERE ARE the BUCKS?

If bucks are unquestionably more vulnerable during the rut, why aren’t you seeing a mature deer or two during that mythical period?

One explanation is you might have missed the rut.

Tomberlin notes that different parts of whitetail country have differing lengths of peak breeding activity. For example, rut intensity tends to be higher over shorter periods of time in northern regions, sometimes lasting just a few days.

That means bucks have to spend more time searching for hot does before the brief window closes, and they cover more ground.

If you plan your hunting dates wrong by just a few days, you could easily miss the breeding activity.

In some southern regions, on the other hand, the peak breeding season can last for a month or more. That means bucks are less desperate and less likely to run wild in search of does.

“Areas with a low buck-to-doe ratio can see a lower intensity in rut activity,” Tomberlin said. “If there are lots of does, bucks don’t have as much competition.”

That’s why Virginia hunter Todd Barnes lives by one rule: Kill as many does as possible prior to the rut. It’s a simple philosophy that has paid dividends for the 47-year-old hunter.

“If there are too many does, bucks can just lie around and tend them at their leisure,” he said. “It’s kind of like Hugh Hefner surrounded by dozens of beautiful women. Why would he look for more? I put a lot of pressure on does before the rut starts.”

Any of these issues can hinder your success, but Demarais says it comes down to probability. Hunters who spend time in areas with low buck densities are less likely to see a buck, rut or no rut. It doesn’t matter how many does are on the property, nor whether some, all or none of those does are in estrus.

What matters is that a buck is either on an excursion in search of a hot doe or following one when he happens to run, walk or trot past your stand. In other words, it’s largely a matter of luck.

Fortunately for deer hunters, bucks are on their feet and covering more ground during the rut, often throwing caution to the wind in their pursuit.

Whether your land has lots of bucks or just a few, your chances of seeing one are higher during the rut than outside it.

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This article was published in the November 2012 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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